Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Visions Dancing

This post is related, in a very tangential way, to the series of “formative events” posts I’ve been making. But what I’m discussing here is not, in and of itself, a formative event.

Remember the famous line from “Twas the night before Christmas"? …visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads

Well, there are no sugar-plums dancing in my head.

I have long been envious of people who are skilled at making sketches of real-life scenes, especially faces and animals. Once, long ago, I decided to pursue this skill — I bought a book called “Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain” (which came highly recommended by a friend who could draw), and some appropriate paper and pencils. I sat down with the book, getting just a few pages into it when the author asked me to do a simple exercise: she wanted me to visualize the letter “L” in my mind’s eye, and then rotate it. It was clear from the prose that she never expected anyone to find this difficult.

I found it to be impossible. I cannot, no matter how hard I try, visualize an “L", much less rotate it. I can’t visualize anything else, either. As far as I can tell, I have no “mind’s eye”.

For a few years after I made this discovery about myself, I often asked other people about their ability to do this exercise with the “L” — and not one of them ever expressed any difficulty with it. I’ve also asked my doctor about it — actually two doctors, at different times. Both of them gave me an odd look; one of them asked if this was a change. Both told me not to worry about it.

More recently, I’ve done some “research” on the web, and I’ve found a few references to this phenomenon — it seems to be uncommon, and associated with autism, poor visual memory (e.g., faces), disinterest in the visual arts, and low scores on spatial reasoning tests. So far as I know, I’m not autistic. I do have a very poor memory for faces. I’m very interested in some visual arts, particularly photography, drawing, and graphics. And I’ve got 99th+ percentile scores on every spatial reasoning test I’ve ever taken. Nothing I’ve read on the web, however, points to any particular cause for being unable to visualize.

I’ve often wondered how (or if) the absence of visualization ability has impacted my life. One thing I’ve read in several places is advice to people with “visualization disability” that they avoid careers like engineering that supposedly rely on visualization. That would have been tragically bad advice to me — I’m all about engineering, and I can’t imagine a career I’d enjoy more, or be more competent at. I’ve also wondered whether my brain developed in some other way to compensate for the inability to visualize — or even whether development in another area caused the inability to visualize.

For a period of a few years, I was really bothered by this inability. Now, though, I find it more curious than anything else; just another one of those things I’d really like to understand. And if I ever want a sugar-plum, I know I’ll just have to go out and get one!


  1. In the old blog, Simon said:
    Three questions: Do you remember your dreams while sleeping? If you do, what do you see? I predict that you see nothing. I say this because when I remember a dream it’s usually words not pictures. And what’s a sugar plum ?

  2. I do remember my dreams, though not very often. And you’re right — when I do remember them, I don’t remember images; I remember the “plot” so to speak.

    According to Wikipedia, a sugar plum is “…a piece of candy that is made of sugar and shaped in a small round or oval shape."

  3. In the old blog, Nancy said:
    You are not alone. When I close my eyes I see absolutely nothing. I didn’t realize how unusual this was until I started asking others, as you did. People don’t believe me. I would very much like to know more information about this which is how I found your blog. If you have since obtained any information about the inability to visualize, please let me know.

  4. ;Hi, Nancy — nice to 'meet' you! What part of Maine are you in? My family has a cabin on Long Pond, just north of North Lincoln, which is just north of Bangor; I know the state very well. Strange affliction we have, isn’t it? I wish I knew more than the little I’ve discovered and documented here, but I do not. If you ever discover anything, I hope you’ll let me know! Tom (the visualizationally challenged one)…